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Safety Rules for SCBA

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By Dan Paulsen
FDSOA International Director

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As firefighters in the 21st century, technology is on our side. The SCBA is an amazing example of how invention has impacted workplace safety. As the days of the heroic “smoke eater” disappear into history, we now run the risk of exaggerating our feelings of safety once the mask is on.

The decision to chase a fire is based on the possibility of a “saveable life” or “saveable property” while ensuring the safety of personnel. The decision to wear appropriate protective equipment should not be optional. How do these ideas mesh with the following stories?

We were called to take care of a burning pot. I’m thinking, “Been through this routine. Smoke doesn’t look very thick. Who needs a face piece?” Turned out it wasn’t food that was burning but the acrylic handles on the pot in the oven. Two steps in, and I was on my knees. The burning in my lungs took weeks to disappear.

SCBA Rule #1: If you’ve got it, wear it
With the infinite variety of building and household materials available, we must assume that we are entering a toxic environment at the fire scene. Once the source of the fire is known, the need for continued use of the SCBA can be reassessed.

The fire was in the headway of a flour mill. The belt that was eight stories high (three below grade) had burned through and fell to the bottom of the shaft. The officer asked for a volunteer to climb through the 24" opening, climb down the vault ladder and extinguish the burning rubber. Entry had to be made with face piece on, with the tank being lowered in afterward. No lives were at immediate risk other than my own. I wasn’t thinking about who might come down to get me if things went sideways.

SCBA Rule #2: Know the limitations of the device
Thankfully sentiments along the lines of, ‘There were no lives at risk … other than my own’ are becoming the exception rather than the rule for the modern day firefighter. With our expanded understanding of fire, firefighting tactics and equipment, we can do our job and keep our people safe.

The firefighter was entering the building that was involved in a room and content fire. Just as he entered the structure, the bayonette connection of the second stage came off at the face piece. The result was a quick exit with a slight inhalation of smoke.

SCBA Rule #3 Train, train, train
The initial reaction was one of mask failure. It seems we are always quick to blame the equipment. The ultimate answer was the need to practice donning and doffing procedures to ensure positive connections. A simple story, but one that can have dire consequences.

We all recognize firefighting as an honorable undertaking with inherent risks and we relish the challenge. Our tools and equipment increase our effectiveness and safety. Though the SCBA will continue to evolve with advances in electronics and composites, technology will never replace good sense and consistent safety practices at the scene of a fire.

Dan Paulsen is a 24-year member of the Saskatoon Fire and Protective Services in Canada. He holds the rank of assistant chief. He is also a fire service instructor in rescue teaching, covering dive rescue/recovery, technical rope, confined space and extrication.

Learn how to lead your department’s safety initiatives in, ‘S.O. Sidelines,’ the Fire Department Safety Officers Association’s FireRescue1 exclusive column. The FDSOA, an 18-year-old fire safety organization, teaches important lessons in how to be an effective fire department safety officer.